by Katharine Armbrester
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” Matthew 7:21-23
If “evangelical” automatically correlates with “Christian” in your mind, then you will probably not enjoy reading this book. But you need to read it.
If you automatically refuse to read this book because “I am not racist, it has nothing to do with me, I’m a good person” then you must read it.
In her brief but impeccably researched and preconception-shattering book, White Evangelical Racism, University of Pennsylvania professor of religion Anthea Butler has written a much-needed primer of the history of evangelicalism in America.
For many, this might be their first foray into the history of the religious and cultural identity that they ascribe to (along with their daddy and his daddy,) and they might even acknowledge that there is much they do not know about the background of evangelicalism. There is much, much to be learned from this book, if one approaches the reading of it in an abject state of humility.
That is, however, a state that many white evangelicals have avoided at all costs for more than 150 years. The territorial and stiff-backed pride of many evangelicals, married to a lust for power, bore a poisoned fruit: racism.
When evangelicals married their educational and religious institutes to nationalism and political power starting in the 1950s, they gained a foothold that has now become a stronghold… Each succeeding decade, they embraced more political power. By 2016, they were willing to embrace a man devoid of the morality evangelicals have preached about, written about, and enforced, in order to retain it. Trump isn’t the reason why evangelicals turned to racism. They were racist all along.
Evangelicalism truly became known for the nationalist and combative spirit that it is associated with during the 1950s, but it first took root in the American cultural landscape in the bloody wake of the Civil War. And its origins were always tied to racism. With the war’s end, southerners invented what historian Charles Regan Wilson termed a “civil religion”—the Lost Cause narrative. This was the myth that the South had always been a truly chivalrous and Christian nation unto itself, had always treated those in bondage as gently as children, bringing many of them to Christ, and the entire war was waged over the state’s rights, not slavery.
Sound familiar? If it does, then you have been exposed to evangelicals who are still worshipping that false idol of the Lost Cause, an idol of resentment, delusion and false pride, an idol which has hampered racial reconciliation and harmed African American men and women and children ever since the war ended.
The Religion of the Lost Cause blended Christian and southern values of slaveholding… By creating a history where the brutality and suffering of Black people was ignored in favor of promoting southern life and chivalry, the Lost Cause essentially turned the states of the former Confederacy into defenders of a noble ideal rather than just violent secessionists that had defied the union.
A literal interpretation of the Bible that deemed slavery as being allowed by God, a mythological ideal of southern civilization based in whiteness, and a preoccupation with purity and sexuality all brought out the worst in white southerners fighting to keep a dishonorable way of life intact. The lives of enslaved and later freed African Americans were made intolerable by evangelicals invested in keeping them in their places and maintaining white supremacy and power.
The “Lost Cause” gave angry southern Christians a platform from which to stand and condemn the rest of the nation with their self-righteousness, and that tendency has not lessened over the past 150 years; it has only increased. The next chance for Christians to prove that they truly wanted to follow Christ instead of the culture arrived during the Civil Rights struggle, but most evangelicals, as they began to be known, were much more interested in defeating Communism thousands of miles away than in defeating racism in their own city.
Butler does an excellent job and is commendably even-handed in her portrayal of Billy Graham, whom many evangelicals revere as something akin to a saint, which he was not. He was both supportive and opposed to Martin Luther King Jr., inconsistent in his rhetoric and dithering in his personal beliefs about the Civil Rights movement. Instead, he preferred to blend middle-class Christianity with a nationalistic and populist fervor, which has done far more harm than good.
[Mid 20th-century] American Christians were encouraged by the new evangelicalism to adhere to particular political and social beliefs. With Graham’s ascension and the organizing of evangelicals into universities, seminaries, and parachurch groups, the political action they engaged in set them up to claim new power while also placing them, as we shall see, in opposition to the movement for civil and social rights for African Americans…
Graham’s suggestion that Christ, rather than the government, was responsible for altering the social strata and making racism obsolete encapsulates beautifully how evangelicals of the time thought about race… Gradualism, not marches or legislation mandating integration, was the proper Christian way to effect change. This was a gradualism that would have to be mediated by what evangelicals and fundamentalists believed was God’s will.
The increasing political involvement that Graham encouraged and Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are famous for was far less about improving the lives of African Americans than it was about improving the lives (and personal fortunes) of white evangelicals. In rare cases during the “Culture Wars” of the 1980s and ‘90s, white evangelicals did reach out to black churches, communities, and leaders (especially right before elections) but efforts were not always followed through or even sincere. There was much said about wanting to reach out to “the other side” but little action, and certainly not at the expense of the potential loss of white culture or authority.
Butler also writes about how powerful and deeply evangelical groups in the 1980s like the American Family Association, Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council “were not overtly racist… Yet the underlying message of these groups was that morality was essential to preserving the nation and that the sexual immorality of America, including race mixing, would be its downfall.” She goes on to state how this is a direct inheritance of the Lost Cause rhetoric:
Much like the nineteenth-century admonitions to protect white womanhood and discourage miscegenation, the message from evangelicals, specifically white evangelicals, was that they were poised to save the nation and civilization.
Along with slavery and racism, another great blight that has poisoned American Christianity is the steadfast refusal of generations of evangelicals to see God as anything other than a God who smiles on white, middle-class nuclear families. These generations have indeed cried “Lord, Lord” but viewed themselves as the saviors of civilization, not Christ. These evangelicals have insisted that African Americans and other citizens of color worship God the same way that they do in their white churches. It is difficult to determine what has contributed more to systematic racism in America: fear, or sheer arrogance.
As illustrated most notoriously by Bob Jones University’s ban on interracial dating, (which was only lifted in 2000 after George W. Bush’s campaign stop there put the school under a national microscope) it is the racist fear of interracial “mixing” and the subsequent diluting of the white Anglo-Saxon race, the still-idealized backbone of our pioneer mythology, which has been behind much evangelical political involvement, even to the present day. Fear and arrogance.
In rural corners of our nation, grandfathers who go to church every Sunday and take their grandchildren to Cracker Barrel for lunch afterward can still be heard to rage against interracial marriage due to that same fear. And, as the increase of hate crimes and the virulence of racist screeds on the internet illustrate, young people have listened; they are listening and repeating what they heard at their beloved grandfather’s knee, as American Evangelicals have done for centuries.
To quote from the classic but still relevant musical South Pacific:
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear/
You’ve got to be taught from year to year…
To hate all the people your relatives hate/
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
In her searing and unforgettable conclusion, Butler does not condemn all evangelicals, but condemns their hypocrisy and lust for power that has corrupted them from within.
Access to power made evangelicalism brittle and unforgiving. Ideology trumped the gospel. Loving your neighbor turned into loving only those who believe as you do…Theological, social, and cultural boundaries keep them from moving forward…As a result, evangelicals are regarded with disdain by the broader public. Evangelicals wear this as a badge of honor and as a sign of persecution of Christians. Evangelicals are not being persecuted in America. They are being called to account. Evangelicals are being judged for not keeping to the very morality they asked others to adhere to. They have been found wanting. Evangelicals comfort themselves in the arms of power, in symbols that Jesus disdained. They are the Pharisees.
American Evangelicals since the Civil Rights movement have been using every other word but hate as regards to what they have been carefully teaching and reinforcing at church, at work, in the political sphere, and at home. “It’s not okay to hate a Black person, but it’s okay to hate a Democrat, but if we simply overlook the fact that many Black voters gravitate towards the Democratic party that doesn’t mean we’re racist”… and so on. There are many justifications for these hatreds that pile up every day, corroding the soul every time one turns on Fox News rather than opening the Gospels.
There has been a great deal of teaching at white evangelical grandfather’s knees, and that teaching has unfortunately been a lot less about emulating Christ and loving others with a sacrificial love than it has been about “protecting what’s mine,” i.e. a mythologized and fiercely protected Anglo-Saxon identity. Many evangelicals have cried “Lord, Lord” even as they have followed the culture rather than Christ, and oppressed others to protect their own interests. In Butler’s words, they are the true American Pharisees.
Racial reconciliation and redemption may yet be possible for our fraught nation, but the white evangelicals of which Anthea Butler writes are going to have to begin sacrificing their pride, nationalism, fear, arrogance, and hatred in order to reach out in love to their neighbors who are not white, and who may not be Republican, or even Evangelical.
To paraphrase Jim Elliot, whom along with four other missionaries left the comforts of Billy Graham’s white, affluent 1950s America to lay down their lives for non-white people vastly different than themselves, white evangelicals are going to have to give up what they cannot keep gaining what they can never lose. And only then will they enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Katharine Armbrester is in the MFA creative writing program at the Mississippi University for Women. She is a devotee of Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Atwood and fully intends to be an equally disconcerting playwright—she thinks Alabama needs one.